Saturday, March 06, 2010

Looking Awry at My Little Pony & Other Precious Things

My Little He-Man Pony - Original artwork and photo by © Mari Kasurinen.

A quick post today, to point you towards some of the fascinating work that STS scholar, MIT professor and "big thinker" Sherry Turkle is currently working on. Turkle is well known within new media/internet/game studies for her early work on online identity, particularly The Second Self and Life on the Screen. Her more recent work, however, which is captured in a series of edited volumes published by The MIT PRess, provide an elaboration of Turkle's ongoing inquiry into the relationships between people, technology and material culture...with an emphasis on how "things" - tangible, material, physical objects - mediate and shape both our usage and relationships with technological forms, digital practices, etc. My interest in this work was ignited by a recent post on BoingBoing, relaying a cute and thought provoking story contained in one of Turkle's edited volumes, Falling for Science: Objects in Mind (as discussed in an interview Turkle gave a few months ago). This particular volume is a collection of interviews with MIT students and established computer/scientists about the material objects that provided an initial entry point into developing a personal interest in science, tech, or math (STEM).

What captured the attention of BoingBoing contributor Maggie Koerth-Baker, and mine as well, was computer scientist Christine Alvaradoa's story about the crucial role played by My Little Pony in inspiring her interest in math (and, I would assume, programming). As Alvaradoa writes (in Falling for Science):
I had several small plastic Ponies that I used to play make-believe with my friends. But I had one larger, plush My Little Pony, a bright-green stuffed horse with a vivid pink mane and tail that I played with all by myself. I would sit for hours on my own, braiding and rebraiding its tail. I developed a system for braiding the tail of my Pony that taught me about mathematical concepts-- from division to recursion.

[...]

When I started, I took the hair on the Pony's tail and divided it into three pieces for braiding. Soon I became bored with a single braid. I then divided the tail into nine pieces and made three groups. I braided each group of three until I had three braids, then took these three braids and braided them together. Soon I was up to starting with twenty-seven pieces (nested down to nine braids, then to three and then one) and then on to eighty-one. All the while I was learning about math: I saw that division is the process of taking a large number of things and grouping them into a smaller number of groups. In order to end up with one even braid at the end, I had to be able to divide the initial number evenly by three, then by three,and then by three again, until I ended up with just one braid.

Her description is very reminiscent of the Sadie Plant's comparisons of weaving and computer programming. What's particularly fascinating is how Alvaradoa transformed the pleasures of manipulating the tangible features of her My Little Pony doll into a new form of emergent, educational play.

This article led be back to Turkle's website, and then to the other two installments of the"objects" series, which sound just as fascinating. The first, Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, makes the argument that "We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with," featuring writings, memoirs and essays by scientists, humanists, artists, and designers that explore the power of everyday things. The second, The Inner History of Devices, features chapters applying a variety of methods (with an emphasis on "intimate ethnographies") to explore the ways in which the things "we make [are] woven into our ways of seeing ourselves." She's now taken the discussion to another level with a new solo contribution, Simulation and Its Discontents. Here, Turkle takes on some of the larger philosophical questions raised by the shift from tangible objects and systems to digital/virtual simulations. An impressive body of work - all published within the last three years. Incredible.

While I obviously haven't had the chance to make my way through the collection as of yet, I'm really looking forward to figuring out where Turkle and her collaborators situate themselves within the field of technology studies and the parallel discussions of these same issues that have been unfolding within the realm of philosophy of technology. In any case, this work is sure to be compelling and worthy of focused exploration.

For an overview of some of the themes and theoretical paradigms that Turkle is engaging with in this series, be sure to watch her TechTV Big Thinkers interview from last summer.

And for more examples of transformative and interesting My Little Pony appropriations, you should definitely check out Mari Kasurinen's awesome sculptures, as seen in the (borrowed) image above.

[For those of you do watch the interview = On a personal note, I was struck by how profoundly I related with her comment about how irrational childhood fascinations with stationary stores were once said to be a sign of a lifelong passion/talent for writing. Who knew!?!]

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